Do athletes need to supplement with vitamins A or E?
Do Athletes Need Antioxidants?
By Debra Wein, MS, RD, LDN
Endurance athletes consume large amounts of oxygen which increases the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) and leads to oxidative stress (4). Elevated oxidative stress has been associated with a number of pathologies, including muscle fatigue and muscle injury (3), cardiovascular disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and cancer (4).
An antioxidant is a compound that protects biological systems against the harmful effects or reactions that create excessive oxidants. Dietary antioxidants significantly decrease the adverse effects of ROS (2). Vitamins C and E are powerful antioxidants that work together to protect an athlete from free radicals and oxidative stress. Endurance athletes are subject to great oxidative stress and there have been questions about whether such athletes need more vitamins C and E, especially in the form of supplements (2). It is also important to note that while strenuous aerobic exercise has the potential to produce more tissue-damaging reactive oxygen species, a positive result of aerobic training is a buildup of the body's natural defenses against free radicals (1).
A review of studies shows an almost equal number reporting that antioxidant supplementation has no effect on oxidative stress compared with those that report a decrease. In addition, a small number of studies have reported augmentation of exercise-induced oxidative stress after antioxidant supplementation. An obvious limitation of the current research is the lack of studies investigating antioxidants other than alpha tocopherol and vitamin C (4).
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Although research is still inconclusive to make firm recommendations about whether an athlete should choose antioxidant supplements, an athlete should try to consume a balanced, moderate fat diet with 20 – 35% of total calories, as recommended by the Institute of Medicine, rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, and fiber. The best advice is to try to meet your vitamin and mineral needs through adequate fruit and vegetable intake, and seek individualized nutrition advice from your physician or a Registered Dietitian if you think you need more specific information.
The problem is, of course, that most would like to supplement their way to a healthy diet versus eating a healthy diet [myself included].